“I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot”, or “That Claudius”, or “Claudius the Stammerer”, or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius”, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.” (I, Claudius by Robert Graves)
I hardly know how Robert Graves managed to make an accurate portrayal of ancient Rome so interesting. The only literary trick he uses is a thin first-person perspective, and even so most of the book is spent itemizing family titles, lineages, and marriages. Yet, the book never ceases for a moment to be fascinating. The reason must be that ancient Rome was run like a modern soap opera: with so many executions, lies, and affairs that even the most sophisticated person cannot fail to be entertained by them. In both its phrasing and dry wit, I, Claudius is very early-century British, which may (or may not) be historically accurate but is always charming.
The young, scholarly Claudius speculates with two famous historians on the purpose of writing history, theorizing that historical works can either emphasize rhetoric or accuracy, and so inspire men either towards Virtue or Truth. Robert Graves pioneered a third, more modern, path by melding accurate historical facts with with fictional interpretations of character and motive. Instead of inspiring us towards the ancient values of truth or virtue, Graves inspires the modern person towards googling, fact-checking, and a fascination with the division between fact and fiction. You will find yourself wondering: was Caligula really that mad? Was Tiberius so dissolute, or Germanicus so noble? You will try to google Caligula’s purported ascension to godhood and realize that the internet doesn’t provide the breadth and depth of resources that you would need to answer such a question. In short, you will be interested.
Recommended Action: Buy –
Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Length: 468 (Audiobook: Outstanding. The 1994 version by Frederick Davidson is phenomenal. He brings out the essential British humor of the text winningly)
Ending: A bit of a cliffhanger.
Further Reading: If you liked this, you’ll definitely want to go on to Claudius, the God to see what happens to our dear stammering, republic-loving friend.